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Serra, Junípero (1713–1784)

Serra, Junípero (1713–1784)

Junípero Serra (b. 24 November 1713; d. 28 August 1784), Franciscan missionary in New Spain. The founder of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, Serra was born in Petra, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, to Antonio and Margarita Ferrer de Serra. Christened Miguel José, he attended a Franciscan primary school in Petra until age fifteen, when he traveled to Palma, the capital of Mallorca, to study theology. Serra took the name Junípero upon joining the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) in 1730; he was ordained a priest in 1738. Serra received a doctorate in theology in 1742 and served as a professor of philosophy at Palma's Lullian University until 1749, when he decided to leave Spain and become a missionary among the Indians in the Americas.

Serra began his new career in 1750, working among the natives in the Sierra Gorda region north of Mexico City until 1758. He then returned to the Mexican capital and, although suffering at times from asthma and a painful leg injury, assumed the duties of a traveling missionary priest. In 1768 Serra was placed in charge of former Jesuit missions in Baja (Lower) California, and from there helped plan the occupation of Alta (Upper) California.

Serra, at age fifty-six, accompanied a Spanish overland expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá that reached San Diego in the summer of 1769 and founded the first mission there on 16 July. His second mission, San Carlos Borromeo, founded at Monterey on 3 June 1770, served, with the adjoining presidio, as capital of California. The Franciscans, under Serra's direction as father president for the next fourteen years, founded nine missions; taught the Indians Christian doctrine, agricultural techniques, pottery making, and other useful arts; and helped in the settlement of California.

Serra served and protected the Indians until his death at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, by then located on the Carmel River. Because of his accomplishments and exemplary life, he is known as "the Apostle of California." He was declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in May 1986, beatified in Rome on 25 September 1988, and is under consideration for canonization as a saint.

Serra's treatment of his Indian charges is a topic that has aroused much debate. Native Americans claim he enslaved their ancestors. It must be admitted that the mission system did at times result in harsh treatment of Native Americans. Attracted to the missions with offerings of food and gifts, they were given religious instruction, but they also were often pressed into arduous work in the fields. Unmarried Indians were housed separately by sex and punished for attempting to leave the mission or for other infractions. Punishments included whipping and shackling—common disciplinary measures in the eighteenth century. European diseases spread through the confined areas and killed many Native Americans. The natural hunting-and-gathering economy and loose social organization of the Indians were replaced by a more structured, paternalistic administration. Serra's defenders claim that despite its failings, the Spanish mission system was humanitarian in its intent and sought to prepare Indians to live a settled, church-oriented, European way of life. Serra followed the teachings of his order and the goals of Catholic Spain. The California missions prospered and paved the way for a lasting agricultural economy on the Pacific Coast.

See alsoMissions: Spanish America .


Francisco Palóu, O.F.M., Palóu's Life of Fray Junípero Serra, translated and edited by Maynard J. Geiger, O.F.M. (1945).

Junípero Serra, O.F.M., Writings, 4 vols. edited by Antonine Tibesar, O.F.M. (1955–1966).

Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., The Life and Times of Fray Junípero Serra, 2 vols. (1959).

Francis J. Weber, "California's Serrana Literature," in Southern California Quarterly 51 (1969): 325-342.

Iris H. W. Engstrand, Serra's San Diego (1982).

Don De Nevi and Noel Francis Moholy, O.F.M., Junípero Serra (1985).

Martin J. Morgado, Junípero Serra: A Pictorial Biography (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Oltra Perales, Enrique. El beato fray Junípero Serra: Misiones y misioneros en la Alta California (1769–1823). Valencia: Unión Misional Franciscana, 2004.

Sandos, James A. Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

                                  Iris H. W. Engstrand

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